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Last year saw the 125th anniversary of the oldest brand in specialist hi-fi. While Thorens actually spent its first few decades producing musical boxes, it has a remarkable audio pedigree. So even if you think the current vogue for 12in tonearms is just a craze fuelled by audiophile one-upmanship, you certainly can’t accuse this venerable German company of bandwagon-jumping with its ‘anniversary’ TP 125 Special Edition. This arm looks perfect on Thorens’ flagship turntable, the TD 550. I couldn’t wait to try it!
   Massive, luxurious in every way, the TD 550 seems to fulfil an old-fashioned idea of what a top-of-the-range record player ought to be. The plinth’s highly polished metal front plate has buttons for power on, start/stop, and 33 and 45rpm speed selection, as well as a dominant blue-lit Thorens logo, the brightness of which can be adjusted. At the rear you will find screws to trim the 33/45 speeds, alongside pairs of RCA phono and XLR outputs – although in this case the sockets are redundant because the TP 125SE tonearm comes with its own 1m-long cables which sprout from the arm above its mounting point. They are fed down through a cutout in the arm mounting plate, then clamped by the edge of the arm base: a cunning expedient, if perhaps not quite how you’d expect things to be done on a £10,000 player combination.

FINE WORK OF ART
With its carbon-fibre tube in visual harmony with the turntable’s subchassis, the arm is made for Thorens by Da Vinci of Switzerland. User adjustments are kept to a minimum as Da Vinci thinks that these just introduce errors and problems. There is no azimuth adjustment, for example, but in truth none should be needed unless the maker of your cartridge didn’t put the diamond on straight. Bias compensation on the review sample was by thread and weight, more fiddly to adjust than the Clearaudio-style magnetic bias device shown on Thorens’ website. Otherwise, the arm really is simple to set up and its fine quality makes it a pleasure to use.
   Da Vinci’s jewelled gimbal bearings are the kind you could find in a high-quality Swiss clock movement. Cylindrical pivots run in precision-fitted ruby journals (jewel holes) mounted in brass bushes (chatons), and are restrained from endwise movement by flat jewels or end stones, so there is a total of eight jewels. There is no detectable play in the journals and none between the end stones horizontally, but there is a fraction of a millimetre of freedom in the vertical direction. Presumably this is intentional, as the flat pivot end will always be held firmly against the lower endstone by the weight of the arm itself. I experimented with various cartridges but settled down to extensive listening with Ortofon’s Kontrapunkt A, hardly a price match for this Thorens combo but a fine sonic match nonetheless.

WORKING MIRACLES
It’s difficult to say much about the way the Thorens played Joni Mitchell’s Blue [Reprise KK4128] except that this miraculous record worked its usual emotional transfiguration, carrying the listener away and dismissing any thoughts of hi-fi analysis. You have to give the TD 550 and TP 125 a lot of credit for making this happen. The voice was truly solid, tangible in the centre, while equally solid and real was the plangent guitar on ‘Little Green’, its musical logic made explicit in its own space behind the voice.
   Turning to Eric Clapton’s 1977 LP Slowhand  [RS0 2479 201] I found that the Thorens did a good job of sorting out the multiple guitars on ‘Cocaine’ and then presented a spacious view of the enduring ‘Wonderful Tonight’. As on so many tracks, a solid central image of the vocal was surrounded by well-spaced intricacies of the accompaniment with gutsy and driving rhythms After this, I pulled out Chester and Lester: Guitar Monsters [RCA SPL 12786] from 1978, two guitar greats duetting on a bunch of standards with the sort of relaxed virtuosity that only comes from total mastery. It was so easy to differentiate Chet Atkins’ Gretsch from Les Paul’s Les Paul – and both were really singing.
   Hearing the Guitar Monsters’ ‘Limehouse Blues’ drove me to put on Jazz At The Pawnshop [Proprius 7778-79]  which opens with the same tune. It’s a shame that this remastering cut out the audience sounds at the start, which some non-jazz-loving audiophiles would say was the best bit of the record! But when audience applause and chatter was heard later, it had immense realism and depth. As for the music, there was tremendous rhythm and coherence to the sound, Arne Domnerus’s clarinet solos in particular making more forceful sense than ever.

CARRY ON SPINNING
This in turn led me to that great direct-to-disc big-band classic The King James Version [Sheffield LAB-3]. Nothing seemed crushed or smeared, the sax and brass sections sounding stirring yet with a smooth finish. ‘Cherokee’, a feature for drummer Les DeMerle, had the tom-toms sounding big, bold and exciting. I felt that the notes of the string bass didn’t have quite the last bit of shaping of harmonic content, but there was no feeling of overhang or over-cushioning in the bass, and the music moved along with a foot-tapping rhythm.
   Among many records I enjoyed were Robb Wasserman’s Duets [GRP 97 121], where Jennifer Warnes’ voice sounded beautifully sculpted alongside Wasserman’s convincingly weighty and ‘stringy’ bass. Later, over a real-sounding slow ride cymbal on ‘Tin Pan Alley’ from Texas Flood [Pure Pleasure/Epic 38734], Stevie Ray Vaughan sounded as fine and majestic as he ever did. I just wanted to carry on listening.    

VERDICT
With a treble that’s sweet rather than finely-etched, the TD 550/TP 125SE delivers solid, convincing stereo. It doesn’t exactly jump up and boogie, but its rhythmic presentation is still engaging, the bass authoritative without being ponderous. Above all, perhaps thanks to the 12in arm, it conveys the music with surefooted confidence. Outrageously expensive, but profoundly enjoyable.

 

Originally published in the July 2009 issue.